For many cyclists the second Sunday of April does not represent the death and purported resurrection of a Jewish prophet, who will redeem the believers and relieve them from suffering. Instead, this date marks a different tradition, one in which its adherents use a cobbled roadway dating from the Roman era as a blunt instrument to inflict the maximum amount of suffering a cyclist can endure. Yes, it was Paris-Roubaix weekend all over again and I decided to craft my own homage to the fabled Hell of the North with a 240km ride from Taichung to Kaohsiung.
My goal was to follow the tradition of Paris-Roubaix, and complete a point to point ride in a similar distance at the Queen of the Classics.
Paris-Rubaix is usually run on a 250-260km route from Paris the velodrome in Roubaix, Belgium. The uneven cobbled roads are legendary for shaking riders and their gear to pieces.
Although I have hardly trained, I felt well enough to give it a go and casually made plans to hit the Highway 17 South to Kaohsiung. I did this ride two years ago, but missed last year due to injury.
My plans almost immediately went awry. First, my camera stopped working. Then I took a construction detour in Yuanlin that landed me away from my planned route to Lukang, where I had anticipated hooking up with the Highway 17.
I could feel I was going away from my intended destination and stopped to ask directions. Nobody in Taiwan ever seems to have a clue regarding directions and often the obvious signs are absent, so I found myself meandering through Changhua County.
"Does this road head toward the Highway 17?", I would ask. "Yeah, just go straight." This conversation on three occasions led me to a T intersection.
To make matters worse, I was pedaling into a headwind. Talk about panic setting in.
As I blindly swiped at possible roads, led only by intuition, I was increasingly aware of how much time I was wasting and how much energy it was costing me to fight against the wind in a desperate search for a corridor to the coast.
I ended up spending 3 hours meandering around Changhua County trying to find the Highway 17. When I finally found it, I realized I would be fighting a steady headwind from the SE. I remember when I looked at the weather forecast, the prediction was for a wind from the NNW. I wondered if I had misread the information, and if it meant the wind was blowing TOWARD the NNW.
Now, this was bad. Not only had I wasted valuable time and energy making little progress in Changhua, but I would also be moving at a mere 25kph.
Yes, I cursed this situation aloud. I even thought of turning tail at the Zhoushui River. For some reason, maybe stubbornness and the fact that I had already posted my intentions on Facebook, I got in a tuck and lurched my way southward.
The Paris-Roubaix was dubbed the "Hell of the North" by the race organizers following a reconnaissance tour of the route following World War I. The devastation that had ravaged the French and Belgian countryside was enough to conjure visions of Hell.
Taiwan's western seafront along the Highway 17 could also be compared to a vision of Hell.
This is the proverbial carpet under which all the unsightly things in Taiwan have been swept. It is a desolate landscape of decaying infrastructure, smoldering industry-scape and the resulting eyesore of brothels, cheap motels and lurid KTV joints. The entire route between Yunlin and Tainan is a flat, windswept wasteland of rubble along with the piles upon piles of discarded oyster shells. There are mounds and stacks of shells dotting the entire area, some neatly bundled, others scattered in heaps.
This is by no means a scenic route.
My legs were already burning by the 100k mark. I wondered if I had gotten myself in over my head again.
Then, at just around the fishing port of Budai, I was passed by a temple procession.
One little blue truck with three guys in the back passed me and they shouted a cheer for me. I saw the fat guy in the back frantically groping for something and I worried he might be getting ready to throw firecrackers out the back to wake me up.
I could see a puff of blue smoke as he lit a red box of rockets and I braced myself for the coming onslaught of exploding projectiles.
It wasn't an attack, but instead it was a cheerful salute as they rooted for me to keep going.
I looked down at my Garmin and I was cooking at 23mph.
The wind had shifted to the NNW direction and I was rolling along making good time.
The temple flags confirmed that I would be finishing my ride with the wind at my back, soI settled back into the drops and blasted through Tainan.
Tainan City seems to last forever.
You know you're in Tainan when you the only hills you encounter are where bridges have been built to traverse the rivers and canals that cut into the pancake-flat plain.
Biking through Tainan I had more cheers of support from passing drivers. It really gave me a jolt of energy.
When I finally rolled into Kaohsiung, it was still earlier than I had anticipated. I was feeling ok, but clearly at the end of my riding day.
Before long I had my bike bundled up and was on the HSR to Taichung. I usually get business class because it affords more space for my bike behind the last row of seats. When I went to retrieve my bike, I noticed some asshole had put their luggage on my derailleur. There was plenty of space for it in the luggage compartment and in the cargo space above the seats. Totally stupid and unnecessary.
I sipped a coffee and let my legs decompress.
I was back in Taichung in time to grab dinner and watch the real Paris-Roubaix. I felt better than when I did this ride two years ago. I have more miles in the legs with a new bike. I found I could ride in the drops longer and I took fewer breaks. I just wish I had been able to be in better condition. I have only one one other ride this year that was over 100mi.
I guess it was a good day of punishment.